Decrypting Paris: All About the "Rive Gauche" (Left Bank)

Rue Mouffetard is an ancient street featuring excellent outdoor market shops, charming bars, and more.
Greg Elms/Lonely Planet Images

For those of you with some baseline knowledge of Paris, either because you've visited the French capital or have read a lot about it, you may be familiar with the term "rive gauche"  But for many, this Gallic phrase is confusing and not especially transparent. So what exactly does it refer to?

"Rive Gauche" literally means "left bank" and refers to the southern arrondissements of Paris, whose natural border is the Seine River.

The Seine naturally bifurcates the city of Paris into north and south zones.

The Ile de la Cité, located between the left and right banks of the Seine, harbored the original settlement by the tribe known as the Parisii in the 3rd century BC. Paris only sprawled south and north of the Seine beginning in the Middle Ages. See more on Paris history to learn more about the development of the city.

Pronunciation: [riv goʃ] (Reehv-goash)

An example of the term in context: "The rive gauche once served as stomping grounds for many an artist and intellectual, but the area is now mostly home to middle class and well-to-do families, fashion boutiques and restaurants catering to tourists."

Well-known Rive Gauche monuments and historic sites:

This part of the capital harbors numerous popular tourist attractions and places of significance to the city's long history. These include the Eiffel Tower, the Musee d'Orsay, the Musee Rodin, the Sorbonne University and the Latin Quarter, Luxembourg Gardens, and the formerly arty area known as Saint-Germain-des-Pres.

The Rive Gauche encompasses the 5th arrondissement, 6th arrondissement, 7th arrondissement, 13th arrondissement, 14th arrondissement and 15th arrondissement.

Reputation of the Area:

The generally affluent Rive Gauche, which was for centuries home to artists, students and intellectuals, has seen enormous gentrification following World War II and is now considered a rather posh and quiet area.

Some claim it lacks the authenticity and vibrancy of the Rive Droite (Right Bank) since many of Paris' most famed tourist attractions and neighborhoods are found on the left bank and are carefully preserved for visitors. Nevertheless, plenty of "authentic" communities thrive here, with people enjoying their everyday lives in lively neighborhoods, so this sort of over-generalized statement is mostly unhelpful. Moreover, far from being sleepy and sterile, the area is still a major intellectual center thanks to its many universities and research hubs, and is also a prime location for luxury goods and fashion.

Explore the Area in More Depth: 

In addition to consulting the resources and features listed above, there are a few other ways to explore the left bank in more depth and reach beyond the glossy surface: in truth, most tourists never manage to crack it because they simply don't know where to look. 

For history buffs, I recommend two self-guided walking tours we've put together. Follow in the steps of famous writers by exploring 10 famous literary haunts in Paris, the majority of which are located south of the Seine on the left bank. Interested in medieval history? Take this self-guided tour of key medieval sites in Paris to reach beyond the visible surface of present-day Paris and understand the city's fascinating history as a center of scholarship and religious power in the Middle Ages.

You also shouldn't miss a tour of the old catacombs of Paris, housing the remains of millions of Parisians exhumed during the medieval period. 

Interested in architecture and shopping? Take a whirl at the Le Bon Marché department store. The gorgeous Belle-Epoque/art deco design and massive gourmet food market are two reasons (alongside the huge selection of fashion and design for men and women) will make for an afternoon of old-world glamour and cosmopolitanism. 

Finally, if quiet strolls and escape from the urban grind are more your speed, we recommend taking a walk around the Mouffetard/Jussieu district in the southern reaches of the Latin Quarter, drawing visitors in with its old cobbled streets and charming open-air markets. Meanwhile, the little-known Butte aux Cailles neighborhood features gorgeous art-deco architecture, quiet backstreets, street art galore, and a village-like vibe.